By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It was a simple plan. Get the kid to bring a stolen car to an isolated parking lot, then tase his ass and take him down.
No chase. No shooting. No fuss.
Arvada detective Bill Johnson, the lead investigator on the case, went over the plan in a room crowded with members of the Denver Metro Auto Theft Team, a group of police officers from multiple agencies working on hot-car rings and related crimes. For this DMATT sting operation on a snowy day in January 2007, Johnson had summoned seven other Arvada cops, four Colorado State Patrol officers, a DEA agent, two Lone Tree detectives, investigators from Mountain View, Denver and Colorado State Parks -- eighteen in all, armed with shotguns, rifles and sidearms.
The bust would go down behind the SuperTarget at 50th and Kipling, Johnson explained. The suspect was described in intel documents as part of "a very active auto theft group operation in the metro area," but he was basically a target of opportunity. Just a few hours earlier, Arvada police had arrested a 28-year-old white male in a stolen Honda and found some methamphetamine. Eager to cut a deal, the man had offered to give up both his dealer and the person who'd sold him the car, a guy named Daryl.
Detective Johnson worked the phones and soon identified the target as Darrell Havens, age nineteen. Havens was 5' 5", barely a hundred pounds, but he was one busy carhop. He had arrests scattered across the metro area; at least half a dozen outstanding warrants for crimes ranging from burglary to fraud to auto theft; and a list of known associates tied to meth rings, gang activity, burglaries of equipment and copper wire at the former Gates Rubber factory, and identity theft -- a shitstorm of drug-related property crimes blowing from Lone Tree to Arvada, begging for DMATT action.
By the time of the briefing, Johnson had learned a few important details about Havens. He knew that the kid's right arm was paralyzed, the result of a traffic accident on a stolen motorcycle months earlier. He knew that, while Havens had no history of violent crimes, he sometimes carried a gun and was an expert driver, capable of dangerous stunts, especially when fleeing police or people who'd discovered him in the act of stealing their ride. And the informant had warned the team that Havens wouldn't sit still for a bust. He would do anything to escape, including ramming cars.
The DMATT officers weren't worried. They had several heavy trucks and SUVs at their disposal, including a GMC Yukon, a Jeep Liberty and a monster line of Chevrolets: a Blazer, a Silverado, a Trailblazer and a K2500 pickup. Havens would be driving his latest acquisition, a 2006 Audi A6 worth around $35,000, which the informant had arranged to buy for a couple hundred bucks and an eightball of meth. All the cops had to do was wait for Havens to show up in the area behind the Target, a winding and deserted canyon flanked by a high retaining wall, then move in and arrest him.
"Our intention was to get some big trucks and block his butt in so he can't get out," Johnson told a Lakewood detective a few hours later.
But not much went according to plan that day. In the wake of two heavy snowstorms, the parking lot was a treacherous mix of ice and slush. Originally scheduled for early afternoon, the sting had to be postponed for hours. Havens didn't arrive until after sunset.
By the time it was over, the tight corner where the block-and-tase maneuver was supposed to take place was littered with scraped and battered undercover vehicles, huddled together like the wrecks of a demolition derby.
The crumpled Audi was in the center of the scrum, its windshield starred with bullet holes.
Bill Johnson never got the chance to use his taser. Instead, facing down a suspect that he believed was trying to run him over, he fired nine rounds into the Audi from a few feet away, emptying the clip of his .45 Glock. Three of the bullets struck Havens, hitting him in the chest, neck and jaw. Two lodged near his spine. Already crippled on his right side, the shooting left Havens a quadriplegic, with only very limited movement in his left arm.
The bust got brief play on the news that night, then nothing. The shooting of a car thief trying to flee cops was not a big deal. Interviewed that evening by officers from Jefferson County's Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), which investigates police shootings, Johnson had difficulty recalling Darrell's last name, which he'd learned only hours earlier.
Havens spent months in critical-care facilities. In 2008 he pleaded guilty to theft charges and attempted assault, part of a deal that landed him twenty years in prison and avoided a trial for attempted murder of a police officer. Then he was gone -- but not entirely forgotten, it turns out, by his acquaintances in law enforcement.
Last fall, barely into the second year of his sentence, Havens applied for a special medical parole. The unusual move was initiated not by him, but by Colorado Department of Corrections staff, concerned about the challenge of meeting his medical needs in prison for the next decade or two; his current care is estimated to be costing the state in excess of $200,000 a year. The state parole board agreed that he didn't pose a risk to public safety and approved a plan that would have transferred Havens to a friend's house in Denver, where he would receive nursing care and constant supervision.